The ice-cream heir who saw two fortunes melt away

John Robbins rejected his inheritance and then lost millions to Madoff. But it made him a better person, he tells Guy Adams
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The Independent Online

To lose one personal fortune might be considered bad luck; to lose two looks distinctly careless. That's what happened to John Robbins, the heir to one of the biggest ice-cream empires, who walked away from a vast inheritance at the age of 21, eventually made millions of dollars as a best-selling author, but then had almost everything he owned stolen by Bernie Madoff. And you know what? It made him a better person.

That's what he says, anyway, and he explains why in his latest self-help tome, The New Good Life. The book, published this week, advances a glass-half-full argument: that sudden poverty can be a positive thing, since it often makes people reprioritise their existence. Once you learn how to cope with your new-found austerity, he argues, you can end up healthier and happier than ever. It's an optimistic way of looking at life, considering what happened to Robbins.

On 8 December 2008, he, like many wealthy Americans, received a phone call saying that almost every penny he owned had disappeared in Madoff's elaborate Ponzi scheme. "One moment, my friend was asking, 'Are you sitting down?' The next, he was telling me that our entire investment was gone," he says. "Overnight, I'd lost 95 per cent of my net worth. I was terrified, and utterly horrified. I'll never forget that moment."

Robbins, then 60, spent a few days beating himself up. Then he began "rebuilding". He and his wife, Deo, sold most of their furniture to stave off immediate bankruptcy. They began sleeping on a camp bed at his office, so they could take in lodgers at their eco-house near Santa Cruz. They got rid of their expensive cars and consumer goods, started working extra hours, and grew their own food. It was tough, he says, but strangely liberating.

Today, they're still getting by. And since he's now managed to go from being a millionaire to broke not once, but twice, Robbins counts himself as an expert on coping with unfamiliar financial hardship. In The New Good Life, he shares exactly what he's learnt with a recession-weary world.

But first: that life story.

John Robbins was born into extraordinary wealth and privilege in southern California. His father was Irvine Robbins, his uncle was Burt Baskin. The brothers-in-law lent their names to an ice-cream venture, which grew from a small store in Burbank into a billion-dollar global franchise, famed for its 31 varieties.

John was his father's only son, and from an early age, he was groomed to follow in the paternal footsteps. When he was six, he worked as a cleaner in the Baskin Robbins offices. As a teenager, he spent every summer holiday in its stores and factories. By the time he went to the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1960s, he was only a few years away from taking over the entire business.

But John rebelled. At Berkeley, he developed a keen interest in left-wing politics, protesting against the Vietnam War, and (to the irritation of his right-wing father) marching for civil rights through Alabama and Mississippi with Martin Luther King. By 1969, Robbins had begun to think there might be more to life than inventing a 32nd flavour of ice cream.

And then his uncle Burt died. "He had a heart attack, at a relatively young age, in his fifties. He was a large man, who ate a huge amount of ice cream, and I believe that killed him," Robbins said in an interview with The Independent this week. "It convinced me that I didn't want to spend my life selling a product that was seriously harming people's health. So I told Dad that I wanted out."

The news went down very badly. Irvine, who believed a woman's place was in the home, did not want to hand over the company to his daughters, and now the only suitable heir was rejecting his life's work. He cut his son off without a penny.

John Robbins disappeared to a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. He and his wife built a one-room log cabin, and spent the next 15 years surviving on vegetables they grew and the meagre monthly income they could earn as yoga instructors. Robbins went years without speaking to his family.

In 1984, he returned to California so his 10-year-old son Ocean could go to school. It was then that he decided to write a book explaining what he'd learnt while living "off-grid". The resulting Diet for a New America was one of the first books to explain the pitfalls of a Western diet that had become dependent on meat, dairy and factory farming.

To his amazement and astonishment, his debut book became a bestseller. "Suddenly, I had money again," the 62-year-old recalled, "I was even invited on Oprah."

An overnight hero of the Green movement, Robbins went on to write another seven books, all of which made hefty profits. He built a solar-powered house, set up charitable foundations, and gave millions of dollars to environmental, animal welfare and civil rights charities.

In 2001, John's life of comfortable hippiedom was interrupted when his son, Ocean, had two severely disabled children. The care they would need throughout their lives was likely to cost millions of dollars. Hoping to finance it, their grandfather promptly made what turned out to be the worst financial decision of his adult life.

"A friend had an investment he felt really good about, and asked if we wanted to put our money in. It would be joined with his and a lot of other people's. He said the returns were steady and quite decent. It seemed very straight, so I ended up putting all of our money in it. I even mortgaged our home to the maximum to invest," Robbins said. "All I can tell you now is that it seemed like a good idea at the time."

The money was handed to Bernard Madoff, now serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to defrauding investors of $65bn (£45bn). Robbins declines to say exactly how much he lost, when the whole pack of cards came tumbling down in 2008, but it was several million dollars.

In The New Good Life, he explains what the experience of losing everything has taught him, and argues that we should all reexamine our lives and values to cope with an era of austerity that he believes will last for years. Materialism, he says, is bad for the soul: instead of striving constantly to make money, people should try to focus on their quality of life.

"The old 'good life' was about shopping till the planet drops. It was not sustainable environmentally, but I also think it took a tremendous toll on us spiritually. It severed our connections with the natural world, with our communities, and to our families. In that sense, I think there's something positive about the downturn. So yes, Madoff stole my money. But I'm not prepared to let him steal my life."

John interviewed dozens of newly impoverished Americans while researching the book, and used their stories to explain how resilience, in the face of financial calamity, can be liberating.

He advises readers to audit every area of their finances, to work out what they can get by on. He talks about everything from having fewer children, to making your own soap, becoming self-sufficient in food, and moving to smaller houses that are nearer city centres, thereby cutting down on expensive and time-consuming commuting.

His argument, broadly speaking, is that society should reconfigure the way it measures success. "In the US, if you say somebody is a success, what is almost always meant by that is that they've made a lot of money," he says. "I think that's an impoverishing view. It's so limiting, and so material. I think there's a frugal and simple lifestyle, provided you have a bare minimum in terms of financial resources, which is actually very rich."

Only one member of John's extended family ever bought into his happy-clappy worldview – the rest still barely speak to him – and, surprisingly, it was his father. Irvine fell ill in the late 1980s and was advised by a doctor to read Diet for a New America. By adopting some of his son's advice, he was able to survive for another 20 years.

"He stopped eating sugar, stopped eating ice cream, and had very little meat. For a man who was very conservative, and basically regarded vegetarians as one step removed from Communists, it was a huge step," Robbins said.

"When I went to see him on his deathbed two years ago, he said he was actually proud that I'd had the courage to follow my own star, and that time had proved me right. It was very heart-warming. I guess it showed that blood can be thicker than ice cream."